In a rare non-comedic cold open, this week's edition of Saturday Night Live paid a touching tribute to the young lives lost in the shooting tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday. While it could be argued that a majority of the cold opens this season have been devoid of comedy, the final SNL of 2012 began with a somber rendition of "Silent Night" performed by the New York City Children's Choir, who then had the honor of introducing the show with the traditional "Live from New York, it's Saturday night!" This was a classy presentation and a subtle way to acknowledge the tragic incident while also celebrating the holiday season.
Fortunately, after the opening credits it was right back to the dirty business of jokes about balls and going poop. Presumably, the children were secured in a soundproof room after their performance, and/or were possibly responsible for writing this show. This week's host was Martin Short, a sketch comedy veteran best known for the classic characters he created on SCTV and in his one season as an SNL cast member. At 62 years of age, Short may have slowed down a bit, but his performance still displayed a verve and spryness sorely lacking in SNL hosts half his age. Being the last show of the calendar year, this week also featured a variety of cameo appearances from big-name stars, beginning with Short's musical monologue entitled "The Most Amorous Time of the Year," a sexually-themed reworking of "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" with David Letterman's band leader Paul Shaffer on the piano. Usually the musical monologue is a worthless waste of time to cover for a poor host, but it has become a Christmas tradition and actually made sense because Short noted that most children are conceived during the holidays. As Short headed backstage singing his merry tune, "The Most Amorous Time of the Year" was bolstered by surprise cameos from Kristen Wiig (complete with baby hand), Jimmy Fallon, Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Tina Fey, and Lorne Michaels, whom Short kissed on the lips after threatening Tina with the mistletoe. Short threw himself into this musical number and provided an energetic opening that overshadowed the rest of the program.
The first sketch also featured a guest appearance from another former SNL host, Alec Baldwin, doing his stellar Tony Bennett impersonation with Short playing his goofy brother Jerry Bennett, but the writers obviously had no ideas beyond that. They relied on the lazy crutch of having the Bennett brothers hosting a TV show, with Jay Pharaoh's Kanye West impression as their guest. Since the writers had apparently exhausted the well of creativity, the sketch devolved into a bunch of jokes about hemorrhoids and constipation because the show's sponsor was Dulcolax suppositories. First off, the "celebrity hosting their own TV show" concept is one of the lamest and most overused formulas on SNL and it rarely works. Why not have the Bennett brothers run into Kanye at a celebrity Christmas party or something? Why did it have to be on a talk show set? It did nothing to add to the humor of Short as Tony Bennett's goofy little brother, and in fact detracted from the possibility of something that might actually be funny instead of relying on toilet humor.
The most memorable segment of the night was the return of "What Up With That?" with Samuel L. Jackson as the guest that keeps getting cut off by the James Brown-esque host, played by Kenan Thompson, as he constantly breaks into song. For those keeping score at home, that's two talk-show skits, but at least this one had Martin Short reprising his SCTV character Jackie Rogers, Jr., marking the only time he slipped back into one of his old roles, aside from a brief Ed Grimley-style "I must say" in the monologue. As if that weren't enough, Jackson uttered most of the dreaded F-word and audibly added "bullshit," although it seemed to be accidental because Thompson was supposed to cut him off and screwed up the timing. With its collection of oddball characters including Bill Hader's silent Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and Jason Sudeikis dancing (and smoking) in a red tracksuit, "What Up With That?" is an ode to the absurd and the inadvertent swearing only added to the manic fun of this recurring sketch.
Suffering from a dearth of entertaining topical humor, Weekend Update continues to feel like a half-baked segment cobbled together from discarded jokes that Seth Meyers found in a dumpster outside the studios of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Once again, Update was kept afloat by characters visiting the fake news desk, including Vanessa Bayer's 13-year-old "bar mitzvah boy" Jacob reciting his speech about Hanukkah. This character was a slow burn and found its groove, with Bayer's earnest facial expressions and the concept that Jacob's speech turned out to be a low-level G-rated roast of his family. Also amusing was Cecily Strong's recurring character, That Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With At A Party, which made up for the lack of a Christmas visit from Drunk Uncle.
The final sketch was arguably the best of the bunch, with musical guest Paul McCartney joining Martin Short as a musical duo named Caleb & Monty auditioning for a Christmas project. The former Beatle played Monty, a sadsack who wanted to sing but Caleb would only allow him to play the triangle and then berated him when he missed his cue. McCartney was actually pretty funny and had solid comedic timing, which surprised me. Short's Caleb eventually stormed out and the set was quickly pulled away, allowing McCartney to perform his 1979 holiday hit "Wonderful Christmastime" with the Children's Choir backing him up. Although Sir Paul's voice was in rough shape after the two songs he performed earlier, this was an inspired way to end this week's episode and wish a Merry Christmas to the audience. Overall, this week was an improvement over the last few episodes, but that's faint praise. The next live show isn't until January 19, when Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence will serve as host. As we plunge into the New Year, my Christmas wish is that Santa leaves some funny in SNL's stocking.
FINAL GRADE: C+